By Emma Young
What is psychopathy? For a concept that gets endless attention, there’s surprisingly little agreement. Various models have been put forward over the years. Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist – Revised has been particularly influential. But it, too, has been questioned, with debate centring on the nature of the fundamental traits that together make someone a psychopath.
In a bid for clarity, Cristina Crego at Longwood University and Thomas A. Widiger at the University of Kentucky decided to look for shared traits in six people, real and fictional, who have been identified as psychopathic. They present their work in a new paper in Personality Disorders: Theory, Research and Treatment. Their list includes a few names that might be come as a surprise. But this turned out to be an advantage — the pair feel that it drew them closer to understanding which are the core traits of psychopathy, and which are red herrings.
This is the list:
Theodore (Ted) Bundy: a serial killer who admitted to at least 30 murders in the 1970s. Hare reports that Bundy described himself as “the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet”.
Clyde Barrow: a man who murdered a long list of people, including members of the public and prison guards; also said to be charming and engaging.
Bernie Madoff: a “snake in a suit”, he was responsible for what’s regarded as the largest Ponzi scheme and financial fraud in US history.
Chuck Yeager: a highly successful US test pilot; he had what Tom Wolfe famously called “the right stuff” — in particular, fearlessness. Various researchers have suggested that Yeager might have been psychopathic.
James Bond: there are claims that he, too, is a (fictional) psychopath
Sherlock Holmes: fearless, ruthless in his pursuit of his goals… psychopathic? Some researchers think so, the authors note.
Yeager, Bond and Holmes are also all seen as heroes. But, as Crego and Widiger add, it has been claimed that “the hero and psychopath are twigs from the same branch”.
The pair’s approach was pretty straightforward. Rather than taking traits that have been associated with psychopathy and checking to see if they matched the personalities of purported psychopaths, they took the reverse approach. They prepared 3- to 5-page-long case histories for each of the six individuals. Online participants read these, then used three different rating forms to score them on a very comprehensive range of traits — then the researchers looked for any patterns in the results. The participants were not told that the purpose of the study was to investigate psychopathy (though no doubt many guessed this).
The first form consisted of 39 traits from Hare’s psychopathy checklist, and also traits from other psychopathy measures, such as Paulhus’s Self-Report Psychopathy-III. These traits included “lack of remorse”, “cruel” and “arrogant”, for example. Definitions were provided for each one.
The second form consisted of 12 traits identified by psychopathy pioneer Hervey Cleckley, but not included in the first form. These included “good intelligence” and an absence of delusions (again, definitions were given).
The third form contained 30 items from the Five Factor model of personality. This was included because some researchers argue that psychopathy can be understood as a mixture of scores at the extreme end of normal on measures of extraversion, neuroticism, openness, conscientiousness and agreeableness.
The results led Crego and Widiger to identify eight traits as cropping up time and again. These were: low vulnerability, low self-consciousness, low anxiousness, fearlessness, boldness, assertiveness, dominance and excitement-seeking. However, the traits that really stood out and that overlapped in the cases of Bundy, Barrow and Madoff — the most undisputed psychopaths — were ones that related to antagonism. These included callousness, manipulativeness, dishonest, arrogance and cruelty.
In fact, Yeager, Bond and Holmes didn’t show these antagonistic traits, and didn’t meet traditional criteria for psychopathy. Instead, the authors suggest they may have been mistakenly identified as psychopathic in the past simply because of their fearlessness and boldness. And while these traits are found in psychopaths, they are not exclusive to them. “From this perspective, the hero and psychopath may not represent twigs from the same branch but entirely independent branches,” the pair writes.
Interestingly, low conscientiousness has been identified by other researchers as a key psychopathic trait. But Madoff scored highly in many aspects of conscientiousness, including striving for achievement and being competent. So either Madoff isn’t a psychopath — or low conscientiousness is not a key psychopathic trait.
There are various limitations to the work. One is that the “psychopath” is a hugely popular concept, featuring often in the media and in fiction. It’s certainly possible that the participants not only guessed the purpose of the study, but that their ideas about psychopathy coloured their ratings. Also, of the six individuals, only three would be widely seen as “obvious” psychopaths — and two were of course fictional. Their relevance to understanding actual psychopaths is debatable. It’s also hard to see how this particular work will change the mind of anyone who thinks that Holmes and Bond, say, are psychopaths.
Still, the results will feed into the ongoing argument about which traits are core to psychopathy. According to this work: traits relating to antagonism, yes; fearlessness, boldness, and level of conscientiousness, no.